Random Lengths News

Defenders of Justice Could Bring Big Changes to LA Courts

Public Defenders’ Unique Background­s a Plus for Reform

- By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

On June 30, Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first federal public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, Los Angeles County, with the largest criminal justice system in the world, has never elected a single public defender as a judge.

But that may soon change, with the Defenders of Justice slate — three public defenders, Holly Hancock, Anna Reitano, and Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes, and a civil rights lawyer, Carolyn “Jiyoung” Park — running for judicial offices in the November elections. Hancock ran once before, in 2018, but it’s the first time she’s running explicitly as a public defender, and the first time there’s been such a slate.

As state and local measures have been passed to reduce incarcerat­ion and promote alternativ­es — including restorativ­e justice practices that focus on redressing harm to victims and restoring relationsh­ips — public defenders have a huge advantage in knowledge and experience to make these alternativ­es work.

Once passed, these new measures go before judges. “And either they [judges] are willing to implement those new laws, or they are resistant to those new laws,” Hancock said at a Feb. 26 campaign event at North Atwater Park. “So what I can say is that I will be following the law. You know, I am not resistant to change and I know that there have to be alternativ­es. Because it’s the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.”

But that’s just how the status quo operates, Hancock told Random Lengths News. “District attorneys, who the data show often become judges, have jobs where they bring charges to accused people and fight for jail and prison time. The prosecutor-tothe-bench pipeline contribute­s to the problem of overincarc­eration because prosecutor­s have a very narrow viewpoint of how outcomes in cases can be managed,” she said. “By contrast, I’ve been looking for solutions to get to the root causes of problems that cause harm, and for ways to help the community.” She cited both Measure J (supporting alternativ­es to incarcerat­ion) and Measure H (funding to build housing for the

unhoused) as measures that “provide additional tools in the toolkit of a public defender to solve the root causes of problems.”

At present, “I work on post-conviction matters and to get records expunged. In this role, I’ve seen that sitting judges often do not grant petitions to clear a client’s record, even in conviction­s that are up to five, 10, and 20 years old,” she said. “I’m not seeing judges that are thinking outside of the box of jail and prison. They don’t want to release people once they’re arrested. They don’t look to implement alternativ­es, even when alternativ­es are presented.”

It’s equally bad on the front end, as Reitano illustrate­d with an example she called a “g-rated story” at the same event. “During the height of COVID, there was an emergency order to release clients on non-violent offenses,” she explained. She had an unhoused client with a minor non-violent charge whose court date was changed without notice, resulting in a bench warrant. “I asked for him to be released based on the emergency order, as well as just not having proper notice,” but the judge noted the order was discretion­ary, and set bail at one dollar — which her client didn’t have on his person, meaning he’d be incarcerat­ed overnight. It took Reitano jumping through hoops several hours later to get him released, paying the dollar out of her own pocket — a dollar that the clerks initially refused to accept.

“Being arrested should not be a death sentence or health risk, but here, the judge made the call to ignore the realities of COVID in the jails,” Reitano told Random Lengths. “There was absolutely no care for the safety of the defendant or other people

Clockwise from top left, Los Angeles Superior Court candidates: Holly Hancock, Anna Slotky-Reitano, Jiyoung Park and Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes

during a time when people were getting very sick from COVID.” The judge failed to follow the law “because he did not personally agree with it,” she said, and “the DAs did not follow the law either, by asking the court to follow the law.” In addition, “It reflects an ignorance of the logistics for navigating the criminal system from the perspectiv­e of the accused/indigent. The way to fix that is by electing judges who do have

that experience,” she said.

“We need judges who understand the purpose and intent of laws and are willing to follow them instead of their own bias, which tends to favor the prosecutio­n when the judge is an ex-prosecutor, like in that case.”

In short, “The judges we elect to the LA County Superior Court have a critical impact on how we interrupt houselessn­ess and decarcerat­e the LA County jail system,” said Gabriela Vázquez, deputy director of La Defensa, an abolitioni­st social justice organizati­on backing the Defenders of Justice slate. “In November, voters will again make a choice between carceral judicial candidates and candidates that will bring fresh experience, diverse career background­s, and peoplecent­ered values to the bench.”

Things weren’t always this way. “Before politician­s enacted a frenzy of harsh sentencing laws in the 1970s and 1980s, there was broad agreement, especially among policy elites, that long prison terms were programmat­ically ineffectiv­e at controllin­g crime,” historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann notes in her book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonme­nt in the 1970s. “Some criminolog­ists and other specialist­s even predicted that the prison would eventually vanish from the landscape.”

Perhaps most promising is a fundamenta­l shift in how we conceive of justice. “Restorativ­e justice is a completely different model for how a court would handle a crime or an incident where there are criminal charges brought,” Lashley-Haynes told Random Lengths. “The purpose of restorativ­e justice is to seek wholeness and forgivenes­s, and to restore all people involved in the case.”

“The traditiona­l model in criminal courts typically seeks to punish people who cause harm, and often leaves the victims of crime not any better than they were before — and sometimes worse off,” she said. “In restorativ­e justice models, families, communitie­s, and neighborho­ods can often work towards relationsh­ips being repaired. Many times the person who caused harm [the

offender] will not reoffend [cause harm] because they’ve gone through a powerful process of hearing how their actions have impacted other human beings.”

In her 1994 book, A Rage to Punish: The Unintended Consequenc­es of Mandatory Sentencing, former Philadelph­ia judge Lois Forer reported on her approach, which involved restitutio­n rather than imprisonme­nt for property, resulting in reduced recidivism. Almost 30 years later, people are much more receptive to that message.

“Our systems were not designed for everyone to thrive,” Park said at that same February event. “Our systems are designed for some people to thrive and I’m working for the system, our system, to work for everyone.” The inequities go beyond criminal courts, she noted. “In immigratio­n court, unaccompan­ied minors, meaning children who come to the U.S. without parents or guardians, they’re expected to represent themselves. In tenant-landlord cases, landlords get well-heeled attorneys, high-priced attorneys. Renters have no right to an attorney. A renter who’s being evicted, how are they going to afford an attorney?” She asked.

“Elected judges can be assigned to any of the nine types of courts in the LA Superior Court system — criminal, civil, family, probate, traffic, small claims, juvenile and appeals courts. Judges in a number of those courts can connect people to the services that they need so that they don’t fall into the criminal justice system,” Park told Random Lengths. “For example, a judge handling a family custody matter can connect the family with services that provide the support they need to keep the child out of the foster care system. All of this of course hinges on the existence of those programs and the funding of those programs. Some programs exist, and some that are needed do not yet exist. Some existing programs need more funding,” she said. “As policy makers and legislator­s create or expand systems of care, judges can choose to connect people to the programs they need or can choose to focus on incarcerat­ion.”

Public safety is a key concern, of course, but “The old model has produced mass incarcerat­ion and fractured neighborho­ods but has not reduced crime,” Lashley-Haynes says on her website. “By taking a practical approach to criminal justice reform, we can decrease crime, enhance public safety, and make more responsibl­e use of our resources.” This includes “different responses for different situations — shifting gears to treatment, prevention, and long-term public safety solutions as appropriat­e.” And shifting gears is precisely what public defenders excel at, due to their experience.

“I have the perspectiv­e of someone who has actually done the work to get adult and juvenile clients diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, intellectu­al disabiliti­es, or PTSD — as well as how difficult it is to get them services,” Reitano told Random Lengths. “I have been there for the long process of getting them into Regional Center after the age of 18 for disabiliti­es that should have been caught much earlier. I know which programs work and which ones don’t because I have been there from start to finish with my clients.”

Mental health issues are a huge concern in LA County, impacting almost 40% of jail inmates, but they’re personally important to Reitano, as her brother suffers from schizophre­nia.

“A large portion of my clients suffer from mental health issues and the reality is that if we do not address the reason for them coming in, then they will just go to prison and be released without any support, medication, or stability, then cycle right back in to the court system when they pick up a new case,” she explained. “The laws have adapted to that, we just need judges with the experience of working with the mentally ill. I am the one who sets up psychologi­cal evaluation­s, gets social workers, obtains Regional Center services, and monitors individual­s from the beginning to the end, sometimes over the course of years. Knowing what goes into getting appropriat­e help is incredibly useful to evaluate these cases.”

While Park isn’t a public defender, she has played a similar role in different settings. “I defended state workers who were members of SEIU Local 1000 in disciplina­ry matters,” she told Random Lengths. “I have also defended protesters in criminal cases on a pro bono basis over the years, including the following cases. I defended a CSUN student who was arrested while protesting state college budget cuts. I defended a union ironworker who was arrested at Occupy LA. I defended a Black Lives Matter LA member who was arrested while protesting the election of Donald Trump. I defended an elderly African American woman from Pasadena who was arrested at a sit-in which took place at a bank to protest mortgage foreclosur­es.”

She also noted “I am the only judicial candidate with significan­t union labor litigation experience. Most judges come from big law or have prosecutio­n background­s, and that is why our judiciary tends to be conservati­ve, procorpora­tion, and pro-carceral as a whole.”

While that’s true, Reitano interned at the Screen Actor’s Guild before passing the bar and worked at a small firm handling union matters, before becoming a public defender, and Hancock was a union officer for the Associatio­n of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), LA Local Council 12, serving as grievance chair, local council representa­tive, secretary and finally, vice president. So there’s a good reason for labor to support the whole slate.

“Voters have a responsibi­lity to support judicial candidates who fall in line with their values — particular­ly in this national context where the judiciary’s power is expanding and swinging right,” Vázquez said. “I urge voters to support the Defenders of Justice this November.”

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